CDC’s Ali Khan: “By Every Measure Our Nation Is Dramatically Better Prepared for Public Health Threats”

Aug 23, 2013, 10:57 AM

New Orleans, flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Ross Mayfield. New Orleans, flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Photo courtesy Ross Mayfield.

Today is the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest and most expensive natural disasters in U.S. history. Close to 2,000 people died during the worst of the storm and in the flooding that followed.

Since then, local, state, national and private disaster preparedness efforts have been increasingly improved. States reeling from the impact of last year’s Super Storm Sandy on the East Coast, for example, were able to rely on some of those improvements. They included more and better trained disaster management assistance teams from other states, as well as both commercial and government social media tools that helped professionals communicate among themselves and with the public to share safety and recovery instructions.

“By every measure our nation is dramatically better prepared for public health threats than they were,” said Ali Khan, MD, MPH, Director, Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at a Congressional briefing last week on the topic. It was hosted by the Alliance for Health Reform and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In a conversation with NewPublicHealth this week, Khan ticked off some recent advances in disaster preparedness:

Congressionally appropriated funds for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allow all states to improve their public health and health care preparedness and response capabilities.

  • Response activities now coordinated through state-of-the-art emergency operations center at CDC and centers at almost all state public health departments.
  • Health departments use the National Incident Management System, allowing for structured collaboration across responding agencies.
  • More than 150 laboratories in the United States now belong to CDC’s Laboratory Response Network and can test for biological agents with the addition of regional chemical laboratories.
  • The National Disaster Medical System now includes 49 Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, ten Disaster Mortuary Response Teams and five National Veterinary Response Teams, as well as other specialized units to provide medical-response surge during disasters and emergencies through on-scene medical care, patient transport and definitive care in participating hospitals.
  • The Strategic National Stockpile was authorized and expanded, ensuring the availability of key medical supplies. All states have plans to receive, distribute and dispense these assets. Development of new medical countermeasures under the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) includes new drugs and diagnostics. BARDA has delivered nine new medical countermeasures to the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) in the last six years.
file Officials amid the damage caused by Super Storm Sandy.

Two new initiatives should be operational shortly: Operation DragonFire (ODF), expected to launch in October; and the National Health Security Preparedness Index (NHSPI), which is in the design phase but should launch in the next few months.

ODF will be a cloud-based, participatory platform to collect and disseminate real-time accurate information received during an emergency. The goals are informed decision making and rapid deployment of resources. The system will integrate multiple data sources—crowd-sourced information, social media data and traditional data. Expertise will come from federal agencies; NGOs; state and local health departments; community groups; and preparedness and information technology experts.

The NHSPI will be an annual measure of health security and preparedness at the national and state levels. The Index is designed to give objective information about how well communities, states and the nation are prepared for public health and other emergency situations. It will assess local and national readiness to help guide efforts toward a higher level of health security preparedness.

Khan also shared a critical concern, both at the Congressional briefing and in his conversation with NewPublicHealth, that recent funding cuts are eroding the disaster readiness of local and state health departments.

“We have improved our response [but] that said we are now at a tipping point due to the cuts in preparedness that have been happening in the last decade [which have resulted in] a dramatic decline in funding for state and local health departments, in addition to other challenges they face, such as 40,000 fewer public health employees,” he told NewPublicHealth. “People ask me what worries me most about a disaster and that is the potential for public health departments to be unable to respond to a novel emerging threat.”


>> Bonus Content: Watch the RWJF video "Unwavering: Public Health's Dedication in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy."

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.